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    Curried Favors: Family Recipes from South India
       by "Maya Kaimal Kaimal MacMillan

    If my South Indian father hadn't found himself in a Kansas wheat field thirty years ago, this book would never have been written. Because he was doing atmospheric research on the American prairie, miles from any restaurants, he tried his hand at cooking. Being a scientist gave my father an advantage in cooking--he liked to experiment, and he wrote everything down so he could duplicate his results. Inspired by the flavors of his youth, he started with South Indian standards like sambar, a spicy lentil and vegetable stew; green bean thoren (green beans with coconut and mustard seeds); and Mysore pak, a shortbread-type sweet made with ghee. Dinners in my house would alternate between my American mother's forays into Julia Child and my father's latest experiments with Indian cooking. My sister and brother and I relished it all, and we were reminded of how good we had it when our school friends visited and, catching a whiff of lamb curry, asked if they could stay for dinner. Just as his trips to the Midwest tapered off, my father was approached by the owner of a cookware store in Boulder, Colorado, to see if he'd teach a course on Indian cooking. He taught the popular class for four years and continued refining more North and South Indian dishes all the while. As my interest in cooking grew, I frequently found myself in the kitchen at his elbow--watching, learning, smelling, and tasting. While attending Pomona College in southern California, I formed a cultural club so I could make Indian food for my friends, and when I began working at a New York magazine I catered Indian dinners on deadline nights.

    I was often struck by the disparity between the South Indian cooking Igrew up with and the North Indian food served in restaurants. The more I cooked, the more I understood about different regional styles, and the more motivated I became to learn about South Indian food. Every few years our family would travel to Kerala, the state in South India where my father grew up. On these trips I would plant myself in my aunt's kitchen in her Kottayam home and take careful notes so I could try to reproduce those elusive flavors back in the U.S.

    Kerala is an interesting and unique culinary pocket, its cuisine shaped by climate, geography, and religion. This tropical stretch of land extends along the Malabar Coast, where southwestern India meets the Arabian Sea. In the summer months the monsoon transforms it into a virtual rain forest. Coconut, fish, and shellfish are abundant there, and are combined in numerous curries including fish molee (fish with coconut milk and vinegar) and shrimp thiyal (shrimp in a toasted coconut sauce). Fragrant curry leaves (unrelated to curry powder) and mustard seeds, both of which grow in the region, distinctively season South Indian vegetable curries and dhals (split legumes). An extensive network of waterways outlines brilliant green rice paddies, rice being the staple starch in the diet.

    In contrast, northern India, with its dry plains and cool temperatures, is ideal for growing wheat. The hard durum variety makes excellent chappathi (flat bread cooked on an iron skillet) and puri (deep-fried flat bread); consequently, breads make up the primary starch of that region. Milk products, including cream, ghee (clarified butter), and paneer (homemade cheese) all feature more prominently in the cooking of the north than that of the south.

    While many of the same spices are used in both regions, they are manipulated differently in each. In the north they dry-roast whole spices before grinding them and adding them to their cooking; in the south they blend whole and powdered spices into a wet paste. To round out the flavor of a finished curry, North Indian cooks add a pinch of garam masala, a spice blend usually made with black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom. In the south a curry is finished off with a seasoning of curry leaves, mustard seeds, and dried red pepper, sizzled together in coconut oil.

    Regional Influences

    The southern tip of India was geographically isolated from the Mughal influence that took hold of the north in the Middle Ages. The Mughals were Central Asian invaders who filtered into India, establishing a dynastic rule that lasted from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. They brought with them a taste for lamb, nuts, and dried fruits, and the forerunners of such contemporary North Indian staples as tandoori chicken and pullao. As Muslims, the Mughals avoided pork but ate other types of meat.

    Prior to the arrival of the Mughals, Indian food attitudes in the north and the south were shaped by a Hindu belief that eating and spiritual advancement are part of the same cosmic cycle. Vegetarianism, and specifically avoiding beef, are aspects of this philosophy. The cow and bull have always had an auspicious place in the Hindu religion because of their close associations with the gods Krishna and Shiva, and an important role in the economy as a source of milk and labor. And while Hindus would occasionally eat chicken, fish, goat, or lamb, Buddhists and Jains, on the other hand, followed a strict vegetarian lifestyle, which was relatively easy to do given India's natural abundance of vegetables, grains, and legumes.

    Although the southern cuisine remained largely untouched by the Mughal influence, Kerala's wealth of black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and turmeric turned the ports of Cochin and Calicut into magnets for the worldwide spice trade, bringing the region in contact with the Phoenicians, Romans, and Arabs throughout antiquity; Marco Polo in 1294; the Portuguese, including explorer Vasco da Gama, in 1498; and the Dutch and British beginning in the seventeenth century.

    As each of these groups angled for a piece of the spice trade, they brought with them new foods that worked their way into the cuisine. Saffron, fennel, and fenugreek came originally from the Mediterranean, while New World tomatoes, potatoes, and cashews came to India by way of the Portuguese. The ingredient with the most dramatic impact on Indian cooking was the chili pepper, first discovered by Columbus in the Caribbean, then brought to India by Portuguese traders. Until that point, Indian cooks relied on black pepper for pungency. Once the more complex-tasting chili arrived, it quickly replaced black pepper as the primary hot ingredient of the cuisine.

    Since antiquity, the predominantly Hindu state of Kerala has been home to a thriving Christian population, some of whom St. Thomas the Apostle is believed to have converted in A.D. 52, some of whom arrived in the fourth century after fleeing persecution in Syria. This Syrian Christian community, which distinguishes itself by wearing only white, made a significant contribution to Kerala's cuisine, adding to the local fare meat dishes such as lamb stew and piralen (stir-fried meat marinated in vinegar and spices). The Christians eat all types of meat, including beef and pork. Today approximately 20 percent of Kerala's population is Christian, 60 percent is Hindu, and 20 percent is Muslim, and it is one of two states in India where slaughtering beef is legal (West Bengal is the other).

    Among Kerala's Hindu population is a large ancient subgroup called the Nayars (Nairs), to which my father belongs. Unlike the Namboodiris (Kerala's strictly vegetarian priest class), the Nayars eat chicken, fish, and lamb, although they never serve meat at wedding feasts. Certain dishes like aviyal (mixed vegetables cooked with coconut and tamarind) and thoren (shredded vegetables with grated coconut) are strongly associated with Nayar cooking.

    The Muslim population in Karala, called Moplas, descends from the Arab spice traders who frequented the Malabar Coast. The Muslims introduced elements of their own cooking to the south, with dishes like biriyani, an elaborate combination of rice and meat, and kabab (grilled marinated meat).

    The cooking of Kerala has much in common with that of its neighboring South Indian states: Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh. Sharing similar climates, all four states incorporate coconut milk, tamarind, curry leaves, and mustard seeds into their dishes. The cooking in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka tends to be vegetarian, and dosa (fermented rice pancakes) and sambar are consumed in abundance. Andhra Pradesh's food is Muslim influenced, and renowned as the hottest food in India. Quintessential Kerala dishes, such as appam (rice and coconut pancakes), stew (coconut milk curries), and kichadi (chopped vegetables in a coconut and yogurt sauce), rely on the ever-present coconut. Nevertheless, few people know about the cuisine of these southern states because a majority of the Indian restaurants outside of India serve Mughal-style, North Indian food, since that is widely considered the most refined cooking in India.

    If you are lucky enough to have a South Indian restaurant nearby, there's a good chance it's a vegetarian one. South Indian vegetarian restaurants have been successful in some urban areas, and it seems restaurant owners are reluctant to tamper with this formula. Furthermore, there is a perception among Indian restaurateurs that many of the common South Indian dishes like stews and thorens are rustic, homey foods that would not appeal to non-Indians. As a result, it is very difficult to find typical Kerala-style fish and meat curries outside of India. This book helps to fill that gap and at the same time provides some of the perennial North Indian favorites, like Rogan Josh (page 138), Spinach Paneer (page 81), and Eggplant Bhurta (page 96), that are enjoyed in North and South India alike. Taken together, these recipes give a sense of the wide array of flavors that make up Indian cuisine.

    Tips on Finding Ingredients

    A nice surprise is that most of the ingredients you'll need are sold in supermarkets. If not, they are available from local Indian, East Asian, or even Hispanic markets, or health food stores (see Notes on Ingredients, pages 17-24). For those not near international grocery stores, I've listed some mail-order sources in the back of this book (page 176).

    You won't find references to commercial curry powder in any of these recipes. The terms "curry" and "curry powder" have become so generic that many people only have the vaguest sense of their meaning. "Curry powder" is not a single spice, and "curry" does not define a particular dish. A better definition of curry is a preparation of meat, fish, vegetables, eggs, or even fruit, cooked with a mixture of aromatic spices; it can be wet or dry, spicy or mild. Premixed, packaged "curry powder" doesn't allow for variety. If you want your dishes to be vibrant and distinctive tasting, blend your own spices for each recipe.

    There are many possible origins for the word "curry": it could be from the Tamil (a South Indian language) word kari, meaning "sauce," or from kari leaves (or curry leaves, as I call them here) used in cooking in the south, or even from the wok-shaped vessel called a kadhai. These theories aside, we do know that the British took to using it in the eighteenth century as a general term for all the spicy Indian dishes they encountered, thus bringing it into common use.

    If you keep some basic ingredients on hand--and you may already have them--it will take very little effort to use this book. You will need coriander, cumin, black pepper, red pepper (cayenne), turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, mustard seeds (preferably brown), fennel seeds, and dried red chilies, all of which should be kept in airtight containers to preserve their flavors; anything more than two years old should be replaced. Some ingredients that may not be on your shelf are fresh green chilies, coconut milk, dried grated unsweetened coconut, curry leaves, and tamarind. Cooking with these ingredients will bring you much closer to replicating authentic flavors, so try to obtain them if possible. In some cases a substitution is suggested if the first choice is hard to find; in other cases exotic ingredients, like asafetida, are often listed as optional. In general, the more closely you follow the recipe, the more satisfying your results will be.

    Preparing and Serving Indian Food

    The most efficient way to prepare an Indian meal is to have all the ingredients chopped and measured before beginning. This is useful because a common technique is to add various ingredients to a hot skillet in rapid succession. There will be a fair amount of chopping--everything is cut into bite-size pieces--so do that first. I recommend chopping generous batches of ginger and garlic and having them ready if you're making more than one recipe that needs them. It also helps to measure your ground spice mixtures into small bowls and have them ready to toss into the skillet.

    A number of dishes require the use of green chilies. When handling chilies, be cautious. The oil in their seeds can cause a painful burning sensation, especially if it gets on your face or in your eyes. If you are extremely sensitive to chilies, you may wish to wear latex or rubber gloves. Always be sure to wash your hands thoroughly, and clean your knife and cutting surface when you're done.

    One technique used throughout this book is "seasoning" oil with mustard seeds, curry leaves, and dried red peppers. This method is a standard part of South Indian cooking--sometimes as the first step, sometimes as the last. In either case, it is advised that you have a lid over your skillet when heating the seeds, because as soon as they get very hot, they release their moisture and "pop." Allow the seeds to pop for about ten seconds (with the lid on) before proceeding to the next step in the recipe. This infuses the oil with a nutty flavor, which permeates the entire dish.

    A few dishes call for only two or three spices, but generally curries need between five and ten aromatic ingredients to give them complexity. A spice blend in Indian cooking is referred to as a masala, which simply means a mixture of spices. Some recipes use dry masalas of ground spices, and some use wet masalas of ground spices worked into a paste with coconut, onion, and water. The consistency of the masala has no bearing on whether the final curry is wet or dry.

    In the south, curries with plenty of sauce soak into mounds of rice or porous rice pancakes like dosa and are scooped up with the hand, while in the north drier curries picked up with small pieces of bread are favored. The Indian etiquette for eating with one's hand is to use the right hand only because the left hand is used for cleaning oneself, and therefore considered too impure to touch food. The right hand mixes rice, dhal, and curries together to form a most ball and deftly pops it into the mouth or tears off a bit of bread and wraps it around a small amount of food.

    Although eating with one's hand may seem unrefined to Westerners, there are strict rules governing it. When putting food in the mouth, for example, the hand should barely touch the mouth because contact with one's own saliva would "pollute" the rest of the food, and it is considered rude to lick the fingers while eating or to let pieces of rice drop from the hand. It's a simple art, mastered with a little practice.

    Ideally, an Indian dinner should offer complementary flavors as well as contrasting colors and textures, consisting of at least three to four curries, salad, and rice. Based on that amount of food, I have provided each recipe with a suggested number of servings. If more than a few curries are prepared, each dish will stretch farther, and it follows that fewer dishes will not feed as many people.

    The techniques involved in preparing Indian food are quite straightforward. After you've made a few dishes, it's easy to recognize the patterns in the seasoning and understand the principles behind the preparations. Omitting an ingredient is inadvisable the first time you try a recipe, and I especially caution you to adhere to the salt measurements. Salt makes it possible to taste the spices, and without it a curry will be utterly flat. In most recipes I have recommended tasting for salt before removing the curry from the heat. This step ensures that the saltiness is in balance with the hot (chilies and black pepper) and sour (lemon and tamarind) elements, a guideline taught to my father by his mother. According to my grandmother, if any one of these is in excess, the balance can be restored by slightly increasing the other two. The result will be a better balanced, albeit spicier, curry.

    Some recipes may seem to use a fair amount of oil. The quantity of oil in each recipe is based on the requisite amount needed for frying onions--about 2 tablespoons per cup (180g)--and for obtaining the proper flavor and consistency. Although the oil can be reduced with nonstick cookware, adhere to the recipes for the most authentic results.

    A typical wet curry begins with frying onions over medium-high heat and stirring them frequently until the edges begin to caramelize and turn reddish brown. This can take up to twenty minutes. (Do not crowd too many onions in the pan because they will release so much water that the pan will never get hot enough to brown them. Fry in two batches if the pan is not very wide.) After the onions are browned, minced ginger and garlic are added and fried briefly, followed by the ground spices, the main ingredients, and the cooking liquid. The mixture is brought to a boil and then simmered for thirty to forty-five minutes. At the end of the cooking process the curry might be seasoned with garam masala or a combination of mustard seeds, curry leaves, and dried red peppers cooked in oil.

    The recipes for dry curries begin with heating whole spices (mustard seeds or cumin seeds) in oil, adding the ground spices, the main ingredient, and a minimal amount of water--just enough to steam the meat or vegetable. Periodically a few drops of water are added so the curry won't dry out completely. Dry curries tend to cook faster than wet ones, especially thorens, which contain finely chopped or shredded vegetables.

    Indian cooking is a family tradition; the same dish varies from region to region and home to home. These recipes come from my father, who acquired most of them from his family, and some from friends. After years of shaping, testing, and adapting these recipes with him, it is with pleasure that I pass this collection of Indian dishes along to you. So, when you're trying to curry favor with family and friends, begin with these uncomplicated recipes and unlock a new world of Indian flavors.


    You may already have all the cooking equipment needed to prepare an Indian meal. These are the items you will find yourself using frequently:

    A set of sharp knives such as a 4-inch (10 cm) paring knife and two 6- to 9-inch (15 to 23 cm) utility knives

    A wok with a lid for stir-frying dry curries and deep frying

    One or two heavy-bottomed 4- to 6-quart (4 to 6 L) Dutch ovens or flameproof casseroles for wet curries--stainless steel, anodized aluminum, copper lined, or nonstick

    Two 3-quart (3 L) saucepans with tight-fitting lids for rice and dhal--stainless steel, anodized aluminum, or copper lined

    A heavy 10- to 12-inch (25 to 30 cm) nonstick frying pan with a lid, preferably with deep sides, for wet or dry curries

    A food processor for grinding masala pastes, processing chutneys, and making dough

    A mortar and pestle or coffee grinder dedicated to spices only

    A complete set of measuring spoons and cups

    A rolling pin for breads

    A grater for preparing garlic, ginger, and onion to be used in marinades

    Other useful items

    A mini food processor for coarsely grinding whole spices and chopping garlic and ginger

    A stainless-steel or aluminum idli stand, available at Indian grocery stores

    Metal or wooden skewers for kabab

    Cheesecloth (muslin) for making paneer

    A small frying pan with a lid for seasoning oil with whole spices

    An electric wok for controlled deep frying

    A candy thermometer for deep frying and making sweets


    Copyright Maya Kaimal Kaimal MacMillan


    Curried Favors: Family Recipes from South India
    Curried Favors: Family Recipes from South India

    Maya Kaimal MacMillan, whose father is from Kerala in southern India, is a freelance food writer and magazine photo editor in New York City. Ms. Kaimal has written articles on Indian cuisine for Food & Wine and Saveur, and demonstrated Indian cooking on the Today Show and the Television Food Network. She frequently travels to South India to research new recipes and visit family.


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